“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the word take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”
So says Lord Henry Wotton to a pure, innocent, marvelously beautiful Dorian Gray on the second chapter of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (my copy being a Barnes & Noble edition, 214 pages). The book, released in 1890, tells the story of a young man whose incredible beauty serves as inspiration for a painter, Basil Hallward, to create his masterpiece: a portrait of his male muse which, as the artist says, was done with such feeling that it contains a part of himself. Dorian, who resembles a blank sheet of paper – untainted and inexperienced to the point of naïvity – at chapter one, is introduced by Lord Henry to the seed of all that comes for the rest of the book: vanity.
Lord Henry likes to make statements: statements about arts, statements about life, about love, beauty, religion or whichever topic comes into discussion. The reader learns that from the very start, being introduced to this character through long, continuous speeches that seem to accept no other opinion but the one he proffers. It is exactly this, his certainty at affirming, his summarizing of everything that is complex in a few sentences, that makes him so tempting and fatal to vulnerable Dorian, who, having been convinced that beauty and hedonism are all there truly is, cries, as he sees his portrait finished: “If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything!”. And so happens the premise most of us were already acquainted with: the picture does grow old and Dorian’s sins do not taint his perfect face.
I found the book absolutely incredible. The duality of Dorian’s life is portrayed with elegance, which reminded me of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite books. Wilde writes so exquisitely that the story mimics Dorian’s being, with a perfect, fashionable façade and, at the same time, a sinful, cruel, egoistic content. The book, which was so criticized when published, does actually the opposite of what it was said to do: instead of praising hedonism with no boundaries, it shows exactly how despicable one becomes by ignoring the feelings of others and the consequences of one’s actions. The book is short, but its story is so beautifully put that I ended up feeling that much more had happened in it than in most 700 pages long epic novels.
Though Wilde has altered part of the book to calm down the critics, this remains a strong piece of criticism of society as of today. It reminded me of Panic! At The Disco’s song Build God, Then We’ll Talk and its exposure of conducts that would fit perfectly on Dorian’s story – I can’t reveal enough to spoil it, but everything that happens shows us how, as Dorian himself notices at one point, the wicked aren’t punished and the good aren’t rewarded. True punishment to those in society’s favor seems to come only from the inside, from conscience itself, whether this revelation is presented by simple guilt or by one’s reflection on a portrait. The ending – shocking, tragic, perfect – is the best way to summarize the book’s essence.
If you haven’t read this yet, trust me, it deserves all the credit it is given. The preface itself is so superb it brought tears to my eyes; Oscar Wilde’s defense of his book right at its beginning is so perfect it should be taught at every school and every Literature class. As it says, “Diversity of opinion about a work shows that the work is new, complex, and vital”. I truly believe that this book, in all its complexity, deserves every word of praise it has ever received.